The Arnolfini double portrait: a simple solution

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Date: Sept. 2003
From: Apollo(Vol. 158, Issue 499)
Publisher: Apollo Magazine Ltd.
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,456 words

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The range of responses to Jan van Eyck's Double portrait in the National Gallery is an indication of the painter's stupendous achievement (Fig. 1). The mystery has only grown with the passing centuries. This picture seems both too alien to grasp and at the same time entirely straightforward--encouraging scholars of every variety to register their own different interpretations in print. The dominant account has been that of Erwin Panofsky, who published his first treatment of the picture as long ago as 1934. (1) No matter how certain scholars have become that Panofsky was mistaken, however, his reading is the one every subsequent author must address. It will be necessary therefore to rehearse Panofsky's arguments, as well as those of some of his critics. It is by way of this revisionist history that I arrived at what I will present here: a new and simple solution to the function and meaning of the work.

Panofsky argued that the picture showed a clandestine marriage ceremony, witnessed, he claimed, by the painter himself, shown in the reflection in the mirror. With the addition of his signature, Panofsky concluded, Jan van Eyck endowed his image with the power of a legal document. Arguably, only a masterful scholar could have convinced so many people to accept such an unlikely scenario. His reading was to play the leading role for more than hall a century, so compelling was his erudition and so elegant his prose. One part historical research, one part manifesto, this was the essay in which Panofsky launched his influential but misleading concept of 'disguised symbolism' (whereby an ordinary object painted in a naturalistic way functions as the sign for an idea that--because the symbolism is unknown to modern viewers is hidden). This essay was also the popular test case of Panofsky's ambitious method of 'iconology' that was to dominate the discipline until recent times. Due to its persuasiveness and prestige, then, nearly all subsequent scholars, and the informed public at large, still follow Panofsky and refer to the picture as the Arnolfini wedding. (2)

Panofsky's contention that Van Eyck literally painted a marriage certificate was rooted in two early accounts of the picture. In 1568, Marcus van Vaernewyck described the double portrait as 'a very small panel' in which was painted 'a marriage of a man and a woman who are married by Faith'. (3) In 1604, Karel van Mander, sometimes called the Vasari of the North, perpetuated the misunderstanding in his own commentary, having drawn from Van Vaernewijck. However, it seems unlikely that either of them ever saw the work. Van Mander's interpretation was based on the assumption that the couple's right hands were clasped (since this was required in a marriage ceremony) and that a personification of Faith joined them together. (4)

It was only a few steps from there to the marriage theory set forth by Panofsky, who judged the misunderstandings to be the result of poor Latin, arguing that these earlier sources intended to say the couple was married...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A109131988